I like to keep a low profile.
I’m the background guy, the one standing in the back of the room, watching, paying attention and figuring out what to do next… It’s a role I’m most comfortable and familiar with and my ability to hide in plain sight works well, most of the time.
You see, in the city of San Francisco, I live in one of the worst neighborhoods where people don’t like to be known so I slide quietly through, eyes open and watching the drug deals behind parked cars or out in the open. I hug the building facades on midnight strolls looking at lit candles and flowers and graffiti placed seemingly at random alongside a wall, maybe on Leavenworth Street but marking a place not random at all, another place somebody died on some night, some day. I move through groups of homeless people who if they eye me at all, eye me suspiciously and I especially enjoy sitting on benches outside of darkened, closed, small urban parks where the bus comes, stops and then moves on while across the street people huddle against the outside walls of twenty-four hour convenience stores bathed in the neon glow from beer signs. I’m good at being unseen, fortunate to be ignored or when not, physically big enough for most to realize there are easier targets in my neighborhood’s night…
That is, unless I’m wearing one particular brand of clothing…one emblem in fact that pulls me from this background, from these shadows and from my more comfortable anonymity.
It’s a defining difference out here. I can wear anything by the San Jose Sharks, any band living or dead or just my usual mostly all black, but if I’m wearing the fleur-de-lis, it might as well be a warm spotlight on these darkened streets, and with this symbol, you find friends and acquaintances you never knew you had and sometimes, on those rare nights where one doesn’t want to be so nondescript, it’s awesome.
“Saints!” I hear called out from across Ellis Street.
“NOLA!” shouts a guy rounding the corner onto Larkin.
“New Orleans, baby…” says the person I pass while coming out of the movie on Van Ness Avenue.
Just the other day, I was wearing a sweatshirt with that well known symbol, partially hidden under a black jacket and I found myself engaged in conversation with a woman outside my building, someone I’d seen a number of times but never acknowledged until she saw the fleur-de-lis…and suddenly we’re talking about Uptown, the Bywater, Mandina’s, seeing Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. She told me how she and her mother were displaced after Katrina and how they wound up in San Francisco living in subsidized housing, how they really want to go home and still can’t. We talked about restaurants we knew, stores that are long gone and the vibrant, warmer, slower feeling in New Orleans that, much as I enjoy this city, is very, very different.
It’s really that simple and it says something which is probably not news to a lot of people until you maybe experience it for yourself – New Orleans has a special place in the hearts of most any who have ever been there, lived there and/or left there. It’s simply that kind of place.
Last night, I had the good fortune of seeing a musician’s first stage performance in San Francisco. He’s someone I know through work and he helps make my job just a little bit better, a few more laughs and a bit more relaxed…all because he’s from New Orleans. We have nothing else in common really, nothing but that city and we hang out here and there, just talking about the politics, the Quarter, the Marigny, the river. We talk about three egg breakfast from Verti-Mart brought by bicycle to the bar at 3 am. Best yet, we reminisce about the look of the fog as it rolls into the Quarter off the river, lending a few square blocks some of the most darkly beautiful atmosphere I’ve ever experienced.
A little something else about San Francisco: it does have its own beauty, the Ocean and the Bay, City Lights and Vesuvios, the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park but man, it is a cold place and I don’t just mean the temperature. People here are wary of strangers. They rarely speak to one another on the street. Hell, eye contact is asking a lot round here. It’s just not done, which of course means, for someone who likes to sit in the background or go unnoticed, this can be a real easy kind of town, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing0 even if it is my preference. I’ve lived in my building for a year. 40 apartments. I don’t know anyone’s name and have never stumbled more than a halted hello or two. But two weeks ago I was on a city bus, coming back from the grocery store wearing a Saints hat and some guy I didn’t know was talking rapidly at me. I didn’t know what he was saying cause I had headphones on. You do that here so people don’t talk rapidly to you, but he was real insistent so I pulled out an ear bud and he grinned…
I laughed and he clapped me on the shoulder before getting off at the next stop.
No, not so undercover when you’re wearing the fleur-de-lis.
New Orleans got a spirit, even 2300 plus miles away. It’s infectious and it will make a stranger your friend and sometimes, every once in awhile, even that guy in the background could use a friend.
Love it, and wouldn’t have it any other way…
Have a nice day.